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In this question the issue came up as to whether there's any difference in the level of politeness/correctness involved in I'd rather not say as opposed to I'd prefer not to say.

My own gut feeling is the prefer form is a bit more "formal" (and thus arguably more correct/polite). This NGram shows that I'd rather occurs far more often than I'd prefer. Partly that's just because the rather form is more common, but the difference is far less marked with the more formal I would rather/prefer. I take this to mean rather is more suited to casual use/conversation when used with this meaning.

It could be lots of verbs besides say, and I don't think the not is necessarily relevant here either. But usages vary for certain alternatives - for example, go blind only seems to work with rather.

That's just my opinion. Does anyone have arguments/evidence/sources to either back up or refute the proposition that I'd prefer not to say is more formal than I'd rather not say?

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I can't say I've noticed a distinction, however, thinking about it, it occurred to me that there are some interesting differences in usage regarding nouns and verb forms. But you don't want an answer about that, right? –  z7sg Ѫ Sep 18 '11 at 23:46
    
@z7sg: Maybe I'd rather go blind isn't the only one that doesn't sound right with the other word, and that might not be just because of the song. But you're right - I'm just asking whether prefer really does have a slightly more "formal" edge. –  FumbleFingers Sep 19 '11 at 3:16
    
I've seen some English learning exercise books on Google which say I'd rather = I'd prefer to. Do you feel it's more formal perhaps because the prefer requires a to while rather does not. –  JoseK Sep 19 '11 at 8:36
    
@JoseK: It may be something to do with the extra "to", but it's not obvious to me why that should be so. Apart from my "gut feel", I'm only justifying my proposition based on the relative frequencies using the contracted form "I'd" as opposed to "I would". My NGram links suggest that with the informal "I'd", rather accounts for 90-95% of all instances, but this falls to 60-70% with I would. Prefer is always less common, but when it does occur, it's more likely to be in a non-contracted (i.e. - more formal) context. –  FumbleFingers Sep 19 '11 at 13:07
    
NGrams for "I would prefer not to" may be inflated by hits on Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener. –  Nate Eldredge May 26 '12 at 15:53

2 Answers 2

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Consider "I'd rather to not say" and "I'd prefer to not say". In my book they grammatically (even mathematically) equal so we can simply compare the two individual words which are different. Otherwise there's the obvious reason that you've used a more grammatically formal construction which makes "I'd [verb] to not say" more formal than "I'd [verb] not say".

'Prefer' has a Latin root (1) whereas 'rather' and 'sooner' (2) have the same old English root, cognate with many Germanic languages. Often using the Latin-derived words sounds more formal so that's probably why you think it's more formal. Historically Latin was the common language, especially in academic circles, between various European states and so naturally the "more educated" or "more formal" language would use Latin or Latin-derived words rather than old English.

  1. Prefer: French and Middle French préférer from Latin praeferō.
  2. Rather: Middle English rether from Old English hraþor from Proto-Germanic hraþaz
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Well, it's true I would rather not to [do sth] has completely disappeared, but presumably that was the original "formal" construction. It certainly seems we're more prepared to bend the rules with rather. And it's true words taken from French often outclass OE words. Centuries ago because the Normans were our Conquerers, and today just because a bit of French adds a certain je ne sais quoi. –  FumbleFingers Sep 20 '11 at 2:14
    
"I'd rather to not" isn't grammatical in my book. And nobody uses it, either. Compare this Google Ngram and this Google Ngram. –  Peter Shor May 26 '12 at 21:56

In my experience, "rather" is stronger - and therefore less polite - than "prefer," unless "prefer" is accompanied by a snooty tone. "I'd prefer not to do that" definitely sounds not only more polite to my ears, but also more willing to do the thing if necessary. "I'd rather not do that" seems to carry a more heavy reluctance, and to be a bit more casual as well.

n.b. I am a native speaker of English in the USA.

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Yep! We love using the old English words to add punch and immediacy. Old French and Latin words lack immediacy and add officiousness :) –  Lisa Sep 20 '11 at 2:24

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